Lebanon Blockade a Reagan Option : U.S. Asks Soviets, Syria to Pressure Berri on Hostages
The United States, stepping up a diplomatic campaign to free the 40 Americans held hostage in Lebanon, appealed publicly to Syria and the Soviet Union on Tuesday to bring pressure on Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri for their release.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz has also asked for--and received--help from U.S. allies in Western Europe and elsewhere, officials said.
Officials said the Reagan Administration has sent private messages to both Syria and the Soviets asking for help in ending the crisis, now 12 days old.
Syria, a major political ally of Berri’s Amal organization, has indicated that it is willing to help, the officials said--although how hard the Soviet-backed regime of President Hafez Assad is willing to push the Shia factions remains uncertain.
‘A Wish to Be Helpful’
“President Assad has expressed a wish to be helpful, and Syria is in a position to be helpful,” State Department spokesman Edward P. Djerejian said. “We will quite simply have to see what results.”
Djerejian noted that the Soviet Union has not publicly condemned the hijacking and that the Soviet news media have made “outrageous allegations” that the United States is using the hostage crisis as an excuse to build up its military force in the Middle East.
President Reagan warned Tuesday that if diplomatic persuasion fails to secure the hostages’ release, he is considering tougher actions, including a possible economic blockade of Lebanon.
Shia terrorists are holding 37 passengers and three crew members from TWA Flight 847, hijacked June 14 as it flew from Athens to Rome, to press their demand for the release of more than 700 Lebanese prisoners, most of them Shias, held by Israel.
The diplomatic push to free the hostages, State Department officials said, is designed to convince Berri and his Shia followers that they will lose stature in the world by holding firm.
“The argument that we’re making is that if the Shia community wants to play a major role in Lebanon, they will have to deal with the rest of the world in a reasonable way,” a State Department official said. “Otherwise, they’ll be viewed as terrorists, they’ll be ostracized and they will find themselves limited in what they can do.”
‘It’s Worth a Shot’
The official said it is doubtful that such militant Shia factions as Hezbollah (Party of God), the pro-Iranian group that is believed to hold at least some of the hostages, will respond to such an appeal. “But it’s worth a shot,” he said.
“We’re focusing on Berri,” he added, while acknowledging that the Amal leader, a relative moderate among Shia chieftains, is under great pressure from the more radical groups to defy the United States.
The decision to publicize diplomatic efforts previously kept quiet also appeared aimed at laying the groundwork for international participation in possible sanctions against Lebanon. White House spokesman Larry Speakes and other officials said they would want to enlist other countries in the measures.
Vice President George Bush, on a European tour, won general agreement from West Germany and the Netherlands to cooperate with the United States in more concerted action against terrorism. State Department spokesman Djerejian said the allies have not yet been consulted on any specific options.
Message From Europeans
The 10 nations of the European Economic Community delivered a joint message to Berri on Tuesday “expressing condemnation without reserve for the hijacking of the airplane and the detention of the hostages” and calling for the Americans’ immediate release. The European message, delivered to Berri’s Beirut home by the ambassadors of Italy and Britain, was rejected by the Shia leader as “a one-sided proposal.”
Egypt, Israel and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel--whose powerless government sits only a few miles from the Beirut airport--also issued statements condemning the hijacking.
Several other countries, including Algeria, Switzerland and Sweden, have offered to carry messages between the United States and the terrorists, but Swiss and Swedish diplomats said their offers have not been taken up actively by either side. The Reagan Administration has been in direct communication with Berri, both through U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew in Beirut and by telephone from the White House.
Letter From Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in an apparent attempt to repair strains with the United States over the hostage crisis, sent a letter to Reagan on Monday expressing his desire to cooperate. “Our concern for the safety of the hostages is no different from our concern if they were our own hostages,” Peres told reporters Tuesday.
Last week, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli officials complained that the Reagan Administration seems to want them to release the Arab prisoners but is unwilling to publicly request and take responsibility for such a move.